Ben Hill is a reporter for The New Zealand Herald

Ko effect gets teens on the greens

The Ko effect is hitting New Zealand greens.

Inspired by world No1 Lydia Ko, New Zealand girls are picking up the clubs to follow in the footsteps of the 18-year-old golfing juggernaut.

As Ko continues to roll on with her second LPGA major victory at the ANA Inspiration, more young women are taking to the game than ever before.

New Zealand Golf general manager Dave Mangan is sure Ko is a key driver behind an upward swing in junior female playing numbers.

"Based on the fact that she's now New Zealand's most recognisable female athlete, even arguably our most recognisable athlete in general, I'm sure young ladies aspire to be like her.

"She's a fantastic role model and her influence on young New Zealanders is incredibly positive."

That influence can be seen in a steady rise in the number of girls playing golf since 2013, the year Ko turned professional.

New Zealand Golf recorded 964 under-18 female members holding handicaps across the country's clubs last year, up from 849 two years ago.

Conversely junior men's memberships have fallen each year in the same period, down to 4531 in 2015 from 5393 in 2013.

"We have anecdotal evidence that there are more juniors playing, especially with junior girls," Mr Mangan said.

"I suppose you could attribute that to the Lydia Ko factor, it definitely has something to do with it."

Gulf Harbour Country Club, where Ko is a member, has ramped up its efforts to coax youngsters into picking up the clubs and is getting results.

Coach Frazer Bond said Ko is a "role model" for them.

"All our junior girls know who she is and they all look up to her, not just to have the ability to play like her, but the personality to become someone like that, who's a leader.

"They look to her as a role model for day-to-day life."

Mr Bond said the club had more than doubled the number of junior members in two years, rising from 54 in 2014 to 138 currently.

"Our golf course is an elite course and juniors have been very encouraged over the last five or six years, but prior to that maybe not as much.

"We're quite lucky in New Zealand that we have the ability that we can pick and choose the sports we want to do," he said.

"It gives a lot of kids a lot of choice, whereas overseas it's more of a rich man's sport."

Ko has lent her name to a new under-19 tournament in her home association of North Harbour, which has been enough to incite an unprecedented level of interest.

North Harbour Golf executive officer Andrew Leventis said the Lydia Ko Age Group Championship had already reached capacity for entries.

"It's been supported by Lydia who has given us some financial assistance ... even with a month before entries are due back the event is completely full.

"Junior tournaments are a little bit hard to fill these days but this one is actually oversubscribed.

"We'll be turning people away come cut-off."

Schools are also getting serious.

St Peter's Cambridge has run a golf academy since 2005, and coach Simon Thomas said the school has used a variety of tactics to encourage increased female participation.

"We try and sell them on the fact that it's a really good life skill.

"A lot of the girls have ambitions to go on and have careers, and just to explain to them that this is an advantage in the work place if you can actually front up at golf days, and to use it as a tool."

Two years ago the academy had four girls and 96 boys. Now it has 38 girls and a total player base of 150.

Academy students get 24/7 swipe-card access to the practice facility at the school. Individual coaching sessions cost $775 per term, which includes a shirt, cap, glove and balls.

Mr Thomas said the sport's popularity has been boosted by Ko's success.

"Too often golf is seen as being an old person's sport, and for a lot of the girls it's been something that your gran or your mother might play.

"I think it validates that golf is a sport for girls, and young girls in particular."


Auckland golf membership

2013: 720 total 98 girls (under 18)

2014: 654 total 107 girls

2015: 620 total 131 girls

What it costs:

Gulf Harbour Country Club junior membership: $149 from date of joining to September 30.

Golf balls: $20 for 12, or $100 for 100.

Gloves: $20

Tees: $20

Junior clubs (driver, hybrid, 2 irons, wedge, putter and bag): $279

- NZ Herald

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